Do I Need to Stretch?
Well… The answer is – it depends! The classic answer in physical therapy! It depends on a lot of things, such as do you experience the sensation of tightness? Do you have reduced range of motion at a joint? Does your activity require a big range of motion? And ultimately, does the act of stretching actually accomplish your goal or need in the most effective way? Let’s look into some of these “Do I need to stretch?” scenarios.
My _____ Feels Tight, Do I Need to Stretch It?
Oftentimes many people “feel tight”, but when we measure their range of motion, it is all within a normal range. So if their body part feels tight but their range of motion is normal, what does that mean? The sensation of tightness is a very common compensation for weakness. When the muscle is weak and you are asking it to do things it is not prepared to do, the muscle tissue will rely on tightness to complete the task. Often as we strengthen the person who has normal range of motion, their discomfort will go away once their strength can meet the needs of their activity.
I Can’t Bend One Joint as Much as the Other, Do I Need to Stretch It?
In general, we would like the body to be symmetrical, so it is important to address a difference in flexibility from side to side. If you are lacking range of motion at a joint, you should be seen by a professional (like a physical therapist). They can help assess your range of motion and decide what you should be doing to affect your range of motion and the best way to do so.
Is Stretching The Only Way To Improve My Range of Motion and Treat My “Tightness”?
No. Stretching is not the only way to improve your range of motion. There are many studies that have compared the effects of traditional static (long hold) stretching versus eccentric strength training (focusing on the lengthening or deceleration portion of an exercise). The research has strongly demonstrated that eccentric training has resulted in better improvements in flexibility or range of motion when compared to static stretching!1
This was even studied by the Australian Ballet Company. Traditionally, you would picture professional ballet dancers stretching their bodies into crazy positions. Well, the Australian Ballet Company shifted to using dynamic stretching and eccentric training and not only did they maintain or improve their flexibility, but they also saw a significant reduction in injuries because they were stronger and able to control the movements that they were working to improve!2
I’m About to Workout. Do I Need to Stretch?
There are a lot of benefits to warming up prior to doing activity. Research consistently demonstrates that if you perform an active warm up prior to exercising or competing, it not only can improve your performance, but it can reduce the risk of acute injury (muscle strain or sprain) by 33%, and chronic injury (shin splints, tendon pain, etc.) by 52%.
An active warm up consists of three parts. First, perform active movements targeted at raising your heart rate. Next, move through ranges of motion for the movements you are about to do in your activity. Finally, build in some functional strength movements to prepare your muscles for your activity. Below is an example of an active warm up that we do for our runners:
Traditional long, slow static stretching should be reserved for after activity. Performing it prior to activity has been associated with decreased performance metrics (sprint time, jump height).
So – Do I Need to Stretch?
Again, it really depends. But, keep your needs and goals in mind. Do I have a restriction or do I just feel tight? What is the best way to effectively address my body’s needs? How do I properly prepare my body for the activity I’m about to do? In general, active stretching prior to activity is preferred to long slow stretching. If you are trying to actively change your range of motion, then eccentric training is better than static stretching. And if you truly have a movement deficit likely due to pain or an injury, it is best to see a professional to have a plan designed to meet your needs.
If you are looking to better understand if you need to stretch to address your experience of tightness or a restriction, we are here to help! We offer Free Injury Consultations to help you better understand your needs and discuss the most effective way to accomplish your goals! Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you get out of pain and maximize your performance.
- Nelson RT. A Comparison of the Immediate Effects of Eccentric Training vs Static Stretch on Hamstring Flexibility in High School and College Athletes. N Am J Sports Phys Ther. 2006 May;1(2):56-61. PMID: 21522215; PMCID: PMC2953312.